Face-Painters, Cheese Heads, and Other Revolutionaries

by Tobias Peterson

26 October 2006


“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.”
—Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

“We always strive after things forbidden and covet what is denied us.”
—François Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel

An opera singer, a fur trapper, and a writer walk into a football stadium. It sounds like the setup to a terrible joke, but that’s exactly what seemed to be happening as I squeezed my way through the ticket stalls at a recent Minnesota Viking-Detroit Lions game. A lady wearing a horned helmet and flowing blonde braids chatted amiably to a guy in a vest made of what I could only guess to be a variety of unfortunate rodents. A six-foot tall man, dressed like a refugee from a Lord of the Rings convention, stepped in front of me.  He was dressed head to toe in an ‘armored’ body suit, complete with fake muscles, a helmet, and a plastic hand axe in hand. He slowed my progress as he chatted away excitedly on his cell phone about the Vikings’ prospects for a victory.

The scene was, to say the least, eclectic. But weirder still was the way that these characters attracted almost no attention from the tens of thousands of fans who crowded the Minneapolis Metrodome that Sunday. As I made my way through the crowd, though, I began to see why they fit in so well. I passed countless other fans decked out in replica Viking helmets, fake braids, plastic beads, fake animal furs, real animal furs, and gallons of purple face paint. Among these literal incarnations of weekend warriors, there were also those donning feather boas, crushed velvet suits, and wide-brimmed, feathered pimp hats that bobbed above the crowd as naturally as a knight’s plume at a Renaissance festival. Only, this wasn’t a medieval style carnival, nor was it any kind of Halloween party. It was a football game.

But of course, that’s not quite right, either. It’s nearer the truth to say that it was both carnival and football game; each event informed the other. It’s not unusual to see a proliferation of ersatz barbarians and pimp-alicious enthusiasts pack the seats at a football game. In fact, such shenanigans are so common place among professional football spectators—from the Milkbone-chomping “dawgs” in Cleveland to the space pirate skeletons of Oakland—as to appear a normal and accepted part of the game. What else, one wonders, would the camera operators have to focus on during time-outs?

Still, like most aspects of sport culture, the fan carnival is something that passes without serious comment. More commonly, such eccentrics are dismissed as over-enthusiastic nuts, pathetic losers, or both. Just consider the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine’s boyfriend Puddy paints his face for the hockey playoffs. “What compels a seemingly normal human being to do something
like that?” she wants to know, before branding him a “face painter” and threatening to break up with him. It’s a fair question, though, and demands a fair answer. What turns people into costumed lunatics when they go to sporting events, and particularly football games?

For one answer to this relatively modern quandary, we first have to revisit the Renaissance. For it was during this period (1532-1542) that a Benedictine monk named François Rabelais wrote The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a folk epic aimed at satirizing the ecclesiastical and social orders of his day through a series of bawdy narratives. Briefly, Gargantua is a giant who, along with his son Pantagruel, travel around the kingdom drinking, vomiting, breaking wind, and making “the beast with two backs” whenever they get the chance. On its own, the text stands as a powerful assertion of unfettered humanism that would evolve to challenge Church doctrine in the coming age of Enlightenment. Once famed critic Mikhail Bakhtin read the work, however, Rabelais’ book yielded even further significance.

In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin analyzes the realm of the carnival described in The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and articulates its social meanings both for the participants and their society. The toilet humor that fills Rabelais’ work is, for Bakhtin, not just an ancient equivalent of Porky’s. Instead, it points to an undoing and re-imagination of the social order. When such ridiculousness was at hand, the stern divisions that kept serfs in their fields and kings in their castles disappeared. As Bakhtin puts it, “all were considered equal during carnival…a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age.” In other words, the presence of the carnival (announced in a variety of ways, from off-handed fart jokes to the wearing of elaborate costumes) constitutes a particular kind of social revolution, in which social barriers are broken down through the mechanics of laughter.

So what does all of this have to do with football? A lot, actually. If we follow Bakhtin’s line of reasoning, we come to understand that running around with a wedge of plastic cheese on one’s head (Green Bay Packers) or wearing nothing but a barrel and a pair of suspenders (Denver Broncos) is the same kind of work, culturally speaking, that was accomplished by flatulent giants, or cross-dressing jesters, or juggling scullery maids so many hundreds of years ago. In short, all of this behavior represents a kind of inversion—albeit a temporary, contained one—of the prevailing social order. It allows participants to enter into a social realm that is separate from the everyday and, as such, not subject to its rules and regulations.

The modern football fan has very little in common with a 16th century blacksmith. That is, until you contemplate their relative lots in life: get up, go to work, come home, eat, stare at the fire (or plasma screen TV), go to bed, repeat ad nauseum. Clearly, both then and now, the average person enjoys a break from the mundane, workaday routine that structures their life, day in and day out. Television, reading, Xbox—these are all merely ways of escaping this dull reality. But putting on a dress and fake pig’s nose? For Washington Redskin fans, like all the other NFL carnies, this is a chance to participate in an alternative reality, to posit a secondary existence in which the daily, boring rules of dress and behavior no longer apply. It’s this distinction between passive and active escapism that made the carnival so revolutionary for Bakhtin. By doing things like putting on masks, Bakhtin saw carnival participants as responsible for refiguring their lived existence, and with happy consequences. As Bakhtin puts it, “The mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself.”

Still, why would football fans, who are obviously doing well enough to afford the hefty price of admission for one of these games, seek to reject or reform their current lot in life? The broad answer is that everyone, no matter their paycheck, likes to pretend that they’re someone else—whether that’s a superhero, or a rock star, or just a guy in a furry vest. More specifically, though, the fan carnival’s real appeal lies with those members of the working class who scrimp and save in order to pay their way to the games. (Incidentally, these fans more often than not are the ones lodging vitriolic complaints against pro players for their million-dollar salaries.) It’s hard to find a face painter in the luxury booths. More than likely, these fans are stationed behind the goal posts at either end of the stadium, in places known as “The Dog Pound” (Cleveland) or “The Black Hole” (Oakland). It’s no coincidence that these seats are typically some of the cheaper ones available, since half of the action takes place on the opposite end of the field. By dressing up, then, these fans get to subvert their bosses, mortgages, and all the attendant pressures of middle class life. 

In light of this, the fan carnival is not as silly as it might first appear. Or, it is that silly, and that’s precisely the point. These fools are purposefully foolish and perfectly aware that they’re indulging in an amateur game which revolves around a professional game. Still, it’s the amateurs who are the true revolutionaries, weekend warriors waging battle not against other teams or even other sets of fans, but the dull, monstrous onslaught of the corporate 9-5. Seen in this light, their goofiness seems somehow, almost heroic.

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